A Hike Back in Time: Finding Fossils in Southern Utah

Jirka Matousek
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When you walk on the vast, cairn-studded redrock pathways of Southern Utah, it's not an ordinary hike. The seemingly endless open space practically hums with the sense that many others have come long before you: other creatures, from other times. As a result, you never feel completely alone, even if all you can see for miles is sagebrush, juniper, and towering sandstone fortresses.

But look a little closer, and you'll see something even more extraordinary: The desert landscape is covered with fossils, dinosaur prints, petrified trees, and the artwork of people who came and went long ago. Signs of life cluster around watering holes and caverns that have served and sheltered many creatures on two feet and four.

To feel a sense of wonder and reverence beyond the imaginative stimulation of simply being in Utah’s deserts, pause to share a few moments with its oldest places and listen to what they have to say. Remember that in summer the temps can be piping-hot, so time your adventuring for morning (or start planning your trip now for the fall).

Someone lived here a thousand years ago.
Someone lived here a thousand years ago. Beth Lopez

Footprints of the Giants

If you look closely, you can find dinosaur prints in quite a few places around Utah—one major mecca is in the Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument. The Twentymile Wash track site is home to more than 1,000 tracks made by massive bi-pedal dinosaurs millions of years ago. You can still see their claw marks and the indentations left by their tails when they dipped and dragged momentarily on the windswept sand.

To find the Twentymile Wash site, head for the famed Hole in the Rock Road outside Escalante and drive 14.3 miles down it. Turn right on Left Hand Collet Road, then continue another 2.3 miles to another right turn. You may need to ditch your car if it has low clearance, or continue another half mile to a small trailhead and parking lot. The tracks begin due north of the parking area.

Fortunately, the Escalante area has many other adventure opportunities, so you can tack on a slot canyon hike and explore the petrified forest below.

Forests of Stone

Also just outside Escalante, in the Petrified Forest State Park, a one-mile hiking loop will take you through a hauntingly beautiful scene of ancient trees turned to stone. Left in place for countless years, they’ve now taken the shape of colorful striped rocks with clear patterns of tree rings and broken bark.

They’re neatly intermeshed and interspersed with modern plants thriving among the primordial tree remnants. Fossils, dinosaur bones, petroglyphs, and Fremont Indian relics also dot the landscape, showing themselves only to those who look a little harder. As legend has it, those who remove sample souvenirs are plagued with bad luck afterward. So in the words of the U.S. Park Service, take nothing but pictures.

There are some fascinating fossils in Southern Utah.
There are some fascinating fossils in Southern Utah. Jimmy Thomas

Ancient Fossils 

Many places around Utah are treasure troves of ancient fossils preserved from the dinosaurs and their smaller cohorts. In the Late Cretaceous period, Southern Utah was home to nine species of animals that weighed more than 2,000 pounds—making this relatively small piece of real estate on par with present-day Africa.

One very special region is the Kaiparowits Plateau, which rises above the Hole in the Rock Road south of Escalante. This plateau is so remote that it qualifies as some of the most wild and unknown terrain in the lower 48 states. Anyone who ventures here must have excellent technical route-finding skills in the desert backcountry, as the craggy plateau is slashed with slot canyons and complex formations. But the intrepid few who venture here will be in the presence of not only tyrannosaurus rexes but an additional 21 never-seen-before dinosaur species'  fossils.

For the outdoor enthusiasts who don’t want to spend a Survivor-style week in one of the most untamed places in the U.S., the Dinosaur National Monument Quarry Exhibit Hall outside Vernal serves very well. Here you can stand in a kid-friendly, climate-controlled display area and see (and touch!) ancient fossils, or you can hop onto the Fossil Discovery Trail to check them out in a more natural environment. Dinosaur National Monument is also home to many more hiking trailsto explore.

Petroglyphs, like those shown here, are scratched into the surface of the rock, while pictographs are painted on.
Petroglyphs, like those shown here, are scratched into the surface of the rock, while pictographs are painted on. Beth Lopez

Petroglyphs and Pictographs from the Past

There are two kinds of rock art in Southern Utah: petroglyphs, which are scratched into the rock, and pictographs, which are painted on. The latter are more easily weathered away, but if you look in the right places, you’ll find remarkably intact artwork left by people dozens of generations ago.

One famous and easily accessible spot lies just outside Moab, in idyllic Moonflower Canyon. If you follow Kane Creek Drive west of Moab along the Colorado River, you’ll find this little canyon about three miles up. Not only is this spot home to a sprawling petroglyph panel, but you can hike up the canyon and find an old log-jam ladder that previous inhabitants used to ascend the plateau above.

Newspaper Rock is also a classic stop outside Monticello, about 50 miles south of Moab. This rock was covered with art from multiple native American peoples a couple thousand years ago. Its name in Navajo is “Tse’ Hone,” which translates to a rock that tells a story.

Keeping It Real

Of course, leaving any mark on such a special landscape comes with more than ancient forebodings of bad luck. It’s illegal (and just-plain lame)—so these places are best savored in your memory (and in your iPhone’s camera album). Be a champion of these wondrous spots on Earth, and they’ll be intact for you and your fellow adventurers to enjoy.

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